You don’t have Impostor Syndrome

And neither do I anymore

Alicia Liu
Apr 16, 2015 · 4 min read

A couple days ago, this tweet was brought to my attention, and I noticed an unfortunate resemblance to a diagram I made for one of my most popular posts, Overcoming Impostor Syndrome.

It’s not the copying of my diagram that bothers me. I’ve seen my diagram used in other posts and presentations, and it has even been cited in print, though usually with the courtesy of attribution. I have received countless comments that the diagram helped people grasp what they previously could feel but not express, and that makes me happy regardless of whether I get credit or not.

However, changing my diagram and labelling it as: This is what Impostor Syndrome is, grossly distorts my original message, and that ticks me off. Not to mention making it look like an ad for anti-virus software circa 2002.

So I’ve made a new diagram.

Learning to program is hard, as is learning to do anything worthwhile when you’re just starting out. Freaking out about not knowing anything is totally normal, and every budding programmer feels overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of all that they don’t know.

This is not Impostor Syndrome, this is Reality.

The panic that comes from the feeling of not knowing enough, and others will find out, is accurate, if, in fact, you don’t know.

I’ve certainly felt that over and over again. Even after ostensibly having years of programming experience, there have been many times when I realized I had no idea how to do a particular task I was assigned, and would go into a panic. But those times were not me suffering from Impostor Syndrome. I really did not know how to do it, and realizing that with an appropriate amount of consternation pushed me to put in extra hours, ask for help, and finally, actually learning how to do it.

My concern with this misrepresentation of Impostor Syndrome is that it pathologizes the very process of learning itself. When you’re learning, you’re supposed to feel like you’re in the deep end and over your head, otherwise, you’re probably not learning very much. Use that feeling to push yourself to learn more and get better.

Instead, by casting these completely normal feelings of self-doubt as Impostor Syndrome, it makes these feelings seem abnormal and something to be rid of. All that will do is push people towards the opposite side of the spectrum, the Dunning-Kruger effect, where unskilled people think they are hot shit. Frankly, we have way too much of that in this industry already, which is why I am so adamant about setting the record straight on this matter.

By the time I realized that Impostor Syndrome was probably the thing that had held me back in the past, I didn’t have it anymore, because I had learned how to assess my skill in a more objective way. It took me 10 years to realize, despite having learned about Impostor Syndrome long before. That was my key learning about Impostor Syndrome: that when I actually had it, I had no way of realizing it, because my perception seemed normal to me. I thought I just wasn’t meant to be a programmer, despite all evidence to the contrary. Before jumping to self-diagnosing with Impostor Syndrome, get objective evidence of whether you are really valuing yourself too low, or whether it’s a more or less accurate assessment of where you are right now. It’s okay to be a beginner, and feel inadequate. Keep learning and growing, and the circle of what you know will naturally grow.

Finally, Impostor Syndrome does not affect people equally. Minorities are much more likely to experience it, having their competence constantly questioned, while those who have a passing resemblance to Mark Zuckerberg are taken to be star programmers without merit. So it frustrates me that as soon as I wrote about Impostor Syndrome, white men started clamoring to tell me that “Men can have it too!” as if I didn’t know. But I wrote it from a personal perspective, as a woman, because I am one, and that diagram is my personal experience of when the light bulb went off for me. To not only misconstrue it, but in such a way that it appropriates my experience and centers it those who most likely don’t have Impostor Syndrome at all, just plain sucks.

What programmer hasn’t felt like they know so little compared to others? This is reality. Tech is not only a huge field, it’s one that is constantly changing, so no one can know it all. What exacerbates the effect of making people feel like impostors are the blowhards that litter this industry, who want to appear smarter than everyone else, and are constantly putting others down for not knowing this and that, as if they had been born knowing how to program.

When I was just beginning my second year at university, I attended a computer science competition, which mostly drew 4th-years. When talking to them, I asked what “man pages” are, and one guy bulged his eyes out at me with a look of incredulity, nearly shouting “You don’t KNOW what MAN PAGES are?” as if I just admitted I didn’t know how to subtract. What’s the big deal? It takes 2 seconds to explain what it is, and then I would know it too, but he had to make me feel dumb to make himself feel smart. That’s sad. And I won one of the categories beating his team, so there.

Overcoming impostor syndrome is not the issue for the vast majority. The real struggle is to not feel intimidated and diminished by assholes, to value the skill you’ve acquired, but also recognize your limitations, which is the way to keep learning. It won’t be Impostor Syndrome that makes me leave the tech industry, it’ll be a bunch of overconfident pretend-know-it-alls.

Thanks to Ben Willis and Pearl Chen

Alicia Liu

Written by

Wanderer above the sea of fog // programmer beneath the sweat of brow

Counter Intuition

Personal blog on leadership, philosophy, behavior change, and technology.

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